Have you ever wondered why our politicians make certain decisions? Have you ever asked yourself if they have taken into account the wishes of those who elected them? Is there a mechanism to find out what the various parliamentary committees discuss behind closed doors? Should we, as the people who put them into power, have more access to the reasoning behind those decisions? Well up until now we haven’t as an electorate, been putting any pressure on our representatives.
So with that in mind I headed for Malone House on 5 November to the launch of the NI Open Government Network. I was looking forward to seeing what the reaction and the interest would be. I had hoped that there would be some, like myself, who were not employed by voluntary agencies but from civil society. As it turned out there weren’t very many so that is a section of society we need to target.
I realise that Twitter is to some extent an incestuous family and that notifications of these events do not reach those in civil society who are not familiar with social media. We need to reach those with time on their hands and who may like to get involved. It was therefore great to see that the new local community TV station, NvTv, was present to record the views of some of the organisers and guest speakers. Hopefully this will bring the message to those from whom we need support.
There was a turnout of almost 100. Over tea and delicious scones there was all the general chitchat one gets before affairs of this nature. As well as familiar faces I met some not so familiar faces, one of whom informed me he was actually Jim Wells. Turned out he was undercover trying to find ways to undermine the opening and he was there under his parody account of Jim Wails. Nice to meet you Jim.
Then I got the shock of my life, I couldn’t get onto either Wi-Fi or 3G. I was gutted. I considered leaving but decided I would be brave and stick it out. I consoled myself and settled down. At this point Lisa McElherron asked me to do Facilitator at my table. I was like a primary school kid asked to do blackboard monitor. Those round the table introduced themselves. Some were from the voluntary sector others a bit like myself venturing into something new. What we all were was enthusiastic and eager to hear from those on the platform.
The timetable was altered due to Simon Hamilton having to get back to Stormont to have discussions about the budget. Unlike some of the other Ministers up on the hill, I found Mr. Hamilton appeared to be supportive of the need for a more open government. He stated that he was keen to see progress in open data information, open budgets and open policy making. He conjured up a picture of men in white coats when he told us that he had set up a Public Sector Innovation Lab. This ‘lab’ would explore the feasibility of open policymaking. Sounds promising but time will tell. We know how the DUP procrastinates.
The next speaker was Felicity Huston who brought us down to earth or at least the grounds around the Stormont estate. Felicity pointed out that those who walked their dogs in the estate were now required to only walk with their dogs while on a lead. The dogs that is, not the owners. When locals tried to find out why this decision had been made the response from the authorities was slow and unsatisfactory. There were the usual naughty giggles when it was revealed that one of the questions was to do with whether there was more s… before than after the ruling. I imagine it wouldn’t be the first time and won’t be the last when officials at Stormont have had to deal with a load of old s…. It took months to get an answer and apparently no logic was forthcoming as to how the decision was reached. No consultation or openness here it would seem.
Next up to speak was Peter Osborne who showed us a breakdown of his survey on open government awareness. It was carried out with those in the voluntary sector and those in civil society who clicked on the survey on Twitter. Peter also carried out face-to-face interviews with local politicians. Only a little over 22% interviewed were aware of OGP action plans and only a little over 4% were actively involved. So there is much to be done to raise awareness.
Anne Colgan, Chair of the Irish OGP Civil Society Forum, then spoke of the do’s and don’ts. She said to make it work we need to see evidence of government commitment. Was that what we heard today from Simon Hamilton? The network, she said, needs to be cohesive and strategic.
We had a short comfort break at around 11pm. Dealt with a few important phone calls. Ok, the hubby wanted to know how to put the washing machine on. Daughter needed a child-minder for Friday. But as everyone appeared to be dealing with important calls as if they couldn’t be spared for a morning I thought I would try to look important too. I introduced myself to David McCann who was tweeting and reporting the event for Slugger O’ Toole. He said he liked my work. Meant to ask him how he managed to get on Wi-Fi but was star struck.
Back to hear some of the other speakers. We heard from Prof John Barry from Queens. Professor Barry asked ‘ do we use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost? For support not illumination.’ No me neither. Lizetta Lyster from UK Cabinet Office and Tim Hughes from the UK OGP Civil Network finished off the session.
It was then time for a group discussion. Ideas were posted on white boards (well sheets of white paper). Those that were considered most important were relayed back to the chair. These will all be reviewed in due course. We were aware at our table of the need to reach more people, to move into rural and other areas of NI. Also, while for retired and unemployed people afternoon meetings are fine, we need to facilitate those who work by having meetings in the evening. We also thought that meet and greet sessions could work.
Time for lunch, which was extremely tasty. Got into conversation with a lovely lady who had read all my blogs and who it turned out went to the same school as I did. Small world. And so we all headed off, fired with enthusiasm, many signing up to the network before they left. Hopefully the momentum will continue and those of you who didn’t come along will come to our next gathering and together we can work towards having a more Open Government in Northern Ireland
Paul Braithwaite and his team from the Building Change Trust did an excellent job organising the event. Coverage of the event can be found on Twitter @SluggerOToole and @ChangeTrust.
P.S. Discovered later I could have had Wi-Fi for £4 an hour. What a rip off BTOpenzone.